Domestic Wildlife Collection @ Gallery S O

by Melissa Gamwell

23 February 2010

Last Thursday a gaping pair of ostrich-leg boots patiently awaited a recipient at the closing reception of Christian Gonzenbach’s show at Gallery S O titled “Domestic Wildlife Collection”. It was here that a discussion started earlier in the day at the RCA continued; a discussion on his theories of whales. The Swiss artist studies histories and processes, how an animal or object achieves its identity through physicality and material composition.  This is done in the language of nature and animals, with the use of skins, addressing and asking questions of the interior and exterior, of material and spiritual possessions. When does an animal become and animal, and how much needs to be removed before it attains a new purpose, perhaps a functional marketable skin? What is the molecular and spiritual composition of identity?

Gallery SO, Domestic Wildlife Collection

Inside-Out Pets

Ostrich Leg Boots

Gonzenbach was recently working on a mold of a whale, coating the inside surface with a self-formulated skin of clay and plaster, painted black. While the whale would never exist, the mold became a fossil.  He stated that for him whales were imaginary, that he was from the mountains, not the ocean, and since humans no longer have a (legal) trade relationship with these creatures, we justify them in our minds based on modern mythologies instead of first-hand informed practices. When whaling was a valid business, people had to accomodate themselves to this size, creating machines and tools based on a mammoth scale, solidifying their existence.

The presumption of what makes the world we inhabit as it is, remains a human condition that he investigates and humorizes. We cant possibly experience or see the instigations of all form but we wonder. It wasn’t until after attempting to recount my experiential whales, I realized that with the exception of rather small beluga whales in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the famous, undying Shamu at Seaworld in 1993, I had never actually seen a whale in its habitat. Even on a whale watching boat off the coast of Maine, I spent hours with my parents and sisters imagining that each little white-capped wave would manifest into a fin or blowhole, to the point where it was a hallucinatory game- there were beyond doubt whales under the surface but none to be seen!

This presumption of experience is normal, and it made me assess how much of my knowledge is physically uninformed- the answer being most of it. Something as ancient as a whale is a poetic example of how severe this condition may be, and there is certainly the psychology of the oceanic unknown that renders it a beautiful example of loss. The philosophy of this thought is hundreds of books deep – my notion a miniscule particle topping an iceberg that I’ve heard is mostly submerged.

Inside-Out Donkey

Inside-Out Donkey

Gallery Detail

Stop animation of Chicken and Weasel exchanging skins

Eraser Arrowheads

Clay bear shot with gun


Similarly to the whale mold, Gonzenbach creates his own meteors, not by sculpting a meteor but by creating the matter that would violently and gradually deteriorate a substance; Throwing rocks at clay. When I think of meteors there are massive rocks hurtling themselves towards our stratosphere, but of course I assume this is what happens, based only on the knowledge of huge blemish-like craters in the midwest and the shards of specimens in Natural History museums.

This work made me think of these two projects- which while being slightly different in conception, still represent the solidification of imaginary experience and the replication of an iconic source of greed and commerce.

Photo by Damon Winter for The New York Times

“The artist Duke Riley does some last minute work before launching his replica of a Revolutionary War-era submarine, built of plywood and fiberglass and ballasted with lead, off Pier 41 in Red Hook, Brooklyn on Friday August 3, 2007″ Quoted from the New York Times article.

Balaenoptera Musculus by Tom Sachs. Photo is copyright of Tom Sachs

“For the other installation, Balaenoptera Musculus (2006), a life-sized reconstruction of an 18-metre long blue whale, Tom Sachs took his inspiration from the whale model hanging in the ocean life hall at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. The whale, which, for its size, Sachs calls adolescent, is made in foam core, cardboard, and white polyurethane foam, a material often used or architectural models. ” Quoted from the Fondazione Prada Press Release.

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